Susan Kouguell interviews 63 UP director, Michael Apted on narrative vs documentary films, getting feedback and more!
During the 2019 New York Film Festival, I sat down with director Michael Apted to talk about his new documentary 63 UP where it is an Official Selection, as well as his wide-ranging body of work.
Since the 1960’s, Michael Apted has helmed an extensive list of feature films and documentaries. His feature films include Gorillas in the Mist, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Thunderheart, Nell, The World is Not Enough, Enigma, Enough, Amazing Grace, and the third installment of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treaders, and Unlocked.
Mr. Apted’s documentary credits include the Boris Grebenshikov film The Long Way Home, Incident at Oglala, Bring on the Night, Moving the Mountain, Me and Isaac Newton, Power of the Game and the official 2006 World Cup Film. Mr. Apted has also worked extensively in television, including directing episodes of HBO’s epic series Rome, the Showtime series Masters of Sex and Ray Donovan, and the Netflix series Bloodline.
The UP Anthology Documentary Series
The internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning sequels based on the original 7 UP documentary, have followed the lives of 14 Britons since the age of seven in seven-year increments.
The original 7 UP was broadcast as a one-off World in Action Special inspired by the founding editor Tim Hewat’s passionate interest in the Jesuit saying, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” and his anger at what he saw as the rigidity of social class in England. 7 UP featured the children talking about their hopes and dreams for the future. As members of the generation who would be running the country by the year 2000, what did they think they would become?
This groundbreaking documentary anthology has now reached 63 UP, gaining further illuminating insight into its premise of asking whether or not our adult lives are predetermined by earliest influences and the social class in which we are raised.
Director Michael Apted, who moved to Hollywood in the late 70s, has returned every seven years to chart the children’s progress through life. Over six decades, the films have documented the group as they became adults and entered middle-age, dealing with everything life has thrown at them in between.
We began our interview talking about 63 UP.
Kouguell: There is nothing rehearsed in this documentary.
Apted: It has to be the first time it has ever been said or thought.
Kouguell: Did you work from a script or an outline?
Apted: Neither. I write down thoughts and look at all the episodes again just to see what I left behind or should pay more attention to.
I used to plot out the questions I would ask and sometimes give them clues about it, but now I don't tell them beforehand what I want to ask them. I know some of them don't want me.to ask certain questions and so I don’t ask those questions; I don’t want to lose them.
I also don’t see them hardly at all between the times we’re filming every seven years, so I won’t get confused by what’s happened to them otherwise it gets so complicated. I know the big issues we talk about in their life and what they’re doing in this particular point of time.
Kouguell: At what point of the process did you add the voiceover narration?
Apted: I added it during post-production; it’s the last thing I do during the last 2-3 days of dubbing. And then I polish it so it can be as up to date as possible.
Kouguell: Tell me about your collaboration process with the editor.
Apted: I’ve been working with editor Kim Horton since 21 UP. I give him an outline of what we filmed. We type everything up and it’s about 100 pages. I do a rough first draft during the time I’m shooting. Then once I’ve got the major outline of them (the subjects) and I start deciding where I put them, then I mark lines through the transcript and give a rough cut of it to him. If there are problems, he’ll let me know. By the time I finish shooting, we’ve got a pretty good sense of where the subjects are.
We do a rough assembly and the film is about 40 minutes too long and then we start slashing. Then I get into the interesting parts. It’s by elimination; sometimes you do an interview and it doesn't go well and then you’re looking at something and you go back to it and see something good, it’s to keep the big picture of it. It’s not the same order in every film.
Directing Narrative and Documentary Films
Apted: I think doing a documentary is one set of your muscles and doing a drama is another. You can learn from both of them -- how to place material, where you build it. I learned those lessons doing both documentaries and drama. Both of them helped the other; how to keep things interesting on camera when interviewing them, the same way you keep the actor of a drama alive and not just doing it by numbers.
The dramas I do are usually character-driven. It’s very similar to doing a documentary; in a drama you’re always trying to build to something. I say to documentary directors to look at more dramas, to give it more wit so you don’t put one great thing at the beginning; structure the documentary to keep the audience’s interest.
I learned a lot in documentaries about how to cut performances in dramas and to keep the audience on their toes. It’s so interesting to me in a lot of my movies, the more documentaries I do, the more non actors I use in narrative films.
Kouguell: Words of advice to filmmakers?
Apted: It’s painful to have people look at your work. Better to know now than later when you see the reviews. It’s hard to get feedback. It used to drive me mad. Always show it to someone who will tell you the truth.
Apted: The film’s rhythm in both documentary and fiction is important. Keep the audience on their toes so they’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. It’s that element of surprise that is important, but not bogus surprise. If you know you have five big moments in your film, spread the drama around.
63 UP opens November 27th at Film Forum in New York City, December 6th at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles and nationwide December 13th.
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